Mercy For Animals General Counsel Vandhana Bala Describes Animal Welfare and the Power of Undercover Investigations

Vandhana Bala’s talk at HLS on April 6 provided a first hand perspective of some of the Animal Welfare Movement’s biggest hurdles and greatest successes, particularly as they relate to farmed animals. As stated on its website, Mercy For Animals “is an international non profit organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassion food choices and policies…”

MFA has conducted over 40 undercover investigations in efforts to shine light on the agricultural industry and the secrets it keeps from consumers with respect to its treatment of animals. Ms. Bala made clear that MFA operates on the premise that the public has the right to know and ought to know what’s going on behind closed doors. Such investigations have cohesively revealed that standard working conditions on farms include grinding up live male chicks (as only the females are useful to the egg industry), throwing male chicks into trash bags, leaving them to die,, burning off beaks, castrating piglets, cutting off tails of cows, among numerous other equally barbaric practices. Luckily, consumers themselves are demanding greater transparency, which makes investigative footage all the more valuable, as consumers today are willing to watch and listen. The investigations have helped enforce existing animal protection laws, although such laws are few. There are even fewer that protect farmed animals, and a majority of U.S. states have common farming exemptions within animal protection laws, making the above practices entirely legal. Further, if the exemptions aren’t explicitly stated, prosecutors are prone to reading them into the law. It is for this reason that animal cruelty suits are only brought for the most “malicious, sadistic acts of cruelty.”

With respect to the enactment of new laws, investigative footage was instrumental to the advocacy for a ban on cruel confinement in Ohio and in California, MFA released two investigations of egg factory farms before their proposition on cruel confinement was passed. Investigative footage has also led to significant corporate policy changes, resulting in to the improvement of billions of animal lives. Nestle and Wal-Mart have both been investigated and relevant footage led to improved Animal Welfare policies by both; Nestlé’s improved policies proved internationally expansive, as they affected their supply in 90 countries. These investigations are reported on by some of the biggest media outlets globally, and surveys have confirmed that the public does want humane treatment of farmed animals regardless of whether the animals are ultimately slaughtered for consumption. Ms. Bala specifically cited a study done by Kansas State University in which it was shown that every time an investigation was released to the public, the demand for animal products would go down, regardless of the subject matter-i.e. an investigation on broiler chickens could reduce the demand for pork, beef or dairy products.[1]

The Agro industry, however, is fighting back through “Ag-gag” legislation. Ag-gag laws are enacted to prevent investigators from successfully documenting the conditions on factory farms by making such documenting illegal. The American Legislative Exchange Council reportedly “masterminded” the idea of Ag-gag; this council has “prepared sample legislation to protect corporate interests” and have been behind such laws as the Stand Your Ground gun laws and Voter ID laws. Ag-gag laws are typified by whether they 1. ban falsifying any portion of a job application (the application will ask the job candidate if he/she has affiliations with Animal Protection organizations), 2. ban the use of any photography/video on such facilities or 3. require that any documentation of cruelty to farmed animals be immediately provided to law enforcement. The third type is cleverly framed as a way to promote prompt reporting of such cruelties.

The genius/evil of Ag-gag is that “instead of doing something affirmatively to improve conditions” its goal is to simply make awareness of any deplorable conditions inaccessible to the public. Ag-gag is a “slap in the face of transparency,” and “infringe[s] upon our right to know something about an issue as important as the food that we’re eating.” Legislators are, however, aware that Ag-gag laws are incredibly unpopular with the public, and those in favor of Ag-gag will ensure that passage of such laws are as speedy as possible or will sneak them into animal protection legislation, so as to avoid media and public outrage. Although the public is evidently against Ag-gag, Ag-gag’s success is due to the enormous influence of powerful and well-endowed lobbyists of the agricultural industry on certain corrupt legislators. In Iowa, the first state to pass Ag-gag laws, it was revealed that the agricultural industry had provided hefty campaign contributions for the elections of officials who went on to enact Ag-gag laws.

Ms. Bala provided a sense of hope, however, by proposing that Ag-gag is evidence of the agricultural industry’s growing need to fight Animal Welfare groups. While in the past Animal Welfare, as a concept, has been scoffed at by Agro-businesses, it is more recently, and particularly with the growing use of undercover investigations, that the agricultural industry is beginning to realize the impact Animal Welfare groups are having with the public. Ms. Bala went on to encourage the audience, and the public at large, to withdraw financial support from such industries, by cutting back or cutting out meat from our diets and to spread awareness of factory farming practices through social media and word of mouth. Also critical, said Ms. Bala, was the need for writing to legislators about these issues and questioning political candidates about their views on these issues. Ultimately, “there’s work we can all do.”